Last week, up to 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and militiamen began to advance on Tikrit, planning to encircle fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who currently control the city, and “then pounce on them”. The operation signalled the start of a “spring offensive” ultimately aimed at recapturing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. However, in order to bring meaningful progress against ISIL, the spring offensive must be in service of a broader political strategy.
The rise of ISIL does, of course, look a lot like a military problem. In a lightening campaign in June 2014, ISIL routed Iraqi security forces to seize control of key northern towns and cities. Moreover, the sword is central to its policies, media profile and self-identity.
In reality, though, ISIL is the product of a major political crisis in Iraq, which has afforded it everything from access to operating spaces to the opportunity to form tribal coalitions. ISIL was also able to win over an important segment of the Sunni population, left with little stake in a political system from which it was mostly marginalised, and by which it was often persecuted.
The advance of ISIL in Iraq and Syria came about, at least in part, by military approaches to political problems. In the Anbar province of Iraq in 2013, tens of thousands of Iraqi protesters pitched tents and blocked highways, decrying the government’s marginalisation of Sunni leaders, sweeping anti-terror laws, and endemic corruption.
Baghdad ended up deploying the armed forces, simultaneously confirming the protest’s narrative and creating a militarised space in which ISIL gained a significant foothold. As local groups took up arms and clashed with government forces, ISIL fighters began moving into the cities of Anbar. Within weeks, the black flag was raised over parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, while suicide bombings, executions and other violence soared across Iraq.
In Syria, the bleak situation since the 2011 protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is well known. In the shadow of government repression, ISIL and other extremist groups entered the fray from Iraq, hijacked the Syrian opposition, seized territory, captured oil resources, and, at Raqqa, set up the capital of their grim so-called “Islamic State”.
Thus, the very recent histories of both Iraq and Syria suggest that the solution to a political crisis cannot be military.
The Iraq war impacted on the nature of jihadism itself: Both participation in the Iraqi insurgency and the tactical alliance with former Baathist officials drove ISIL and its predecessor groups to approach jihadism as a state-building enterprise.
It is important, therefore, that the agents who attempt to retake ISIL territory do so in the name of a reformed, inclusive central government, and as part of a clear long-term plan to construct government legitimacy. At the very least, urgent work is needed to establish political consensus on the overhaul of de-Baathification legislation.
The de-Baathification policies introduced by the US-led Coalition Provincial Authority in May 2003 were aimed at blocking senior Saddam-era officials from regaining power, but their sweeping application disenfranchised whole Sunni communities, fuelling growing senses of grievance and of sectarian division.
Beyond the realm of formal politics, the Shia militia must be brought to heel. Even government-linked paramilitary groups stand accused by international human rights monitors of abductions, summary executions, and mass expulsions of Sunnis in areas they have sought to “liberate” from ISIL. These sectarian atrocities, horrific in and of themselves, at the same time ensure that, for every step forward on the battlefield, the Iraqi government takes two steps back in the war.
It is important to recall that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 shaped the circumstances under which ISIL came to flourish, from the dismantling of the Iraqi army and the collapse of many state functions, to the brutalising effects of occupation and civil war, to the dramatic shift in the regional balance of power which favoured Iran and therefore intensified sectarian competition across the Middle East.
Crucially, however, the Iraq war impacted on the nature of jihadism itself: Both participation in the Iraqi insurgency and the tactical alliance with former Baathist officials drove ISIL and its predecessor groups to approach jihadism as a state-building enterprise. This territorial and administrative model, with its brutal vision for society, now menaces the entire region.
In dealing with the bitter harvest of the Iraq invasion, any ongoing and future use of force must realistically further a comprehensive political strategy for an inclusive Iraq. Otherwise, Iraq will remain prey to the tyranny, indeed tragedy, of the unintended consequences of military action.
Dr Alia Brahimi is a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford. She received her doctorate from the University of Oxford in 2007.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.